September 2013

Upon awakening, a man should prepare himself for greatness and hold that pose until retiring. Destiny is sneaky.

1. Dressing well shows respect. 

Intuitively, it would seem that dressing well is self-serving, even narcissistic. Of course, much of it is self-serving. But so is putting on deodorant, and I'm sure that your friends on the subway are thankful you did.

I feel respected when people dress up for me. I feel happy when people around me are wearing fun clothes. I feel especially elated when someone near me is wearing a YELLOW SCARF because there is nothing more merry than that. Perhaps the yellow-scarf-wearer just wanted to flaunt a jaunty accessory and didn't intend to lift my soul, but I'm pleased she did!

I had a revelation when I went on a (self-guided) Ice Cream and Canned Fish Tour of Scandinavia when I was about 16. Before that, I always thought that interest in clothes was a completely shallow hobby reserved for only the most depraved.

Then I realized there were entire countries of people dressed impeccably--even the police uniforms were elegantly tailored--and had to revise my theory.

I realized this: In Europe, presenting yourself well is not an act of self-obsession, but a social responsibility. It's a sign of civility, not superficiality, to prioritize appearance. We befuddled Americans like to think about these simple matters in unnecessary extremes--either interest in fashion is totally extravagant and will waste all your money, or, you're a frump who dresses only for comfort (Crocs forever).

The European philosophy is a bit easier to stomach: wear clothes that fit well, look nice, and suit the appropriate occasion. Generally, Europeans have far fewer clothes in their closet than Americans but they are all investments that will last much longer and look much better than whatever drivel we get from Forever 21.

I wish men knew that outfits are public, and dressing well is public service.

2. Dressing well commands respect (or, Check your privilege). 

Style and grooming (or lack thereof) generally has something to do with privilege. American men are notoriously terrible dressers. They are also notoriously privileged. They have the luxury of being able to show up to work with a scruffy face, unwashed hair, and a sloppy suit, and still be taken seriously. Women don't usually get to do that.

When I see men who are clearly attentive to their style, grooming habits, and hygiene, I am immediately impressed. I can gather from his appearance that he does not assume he's going to earn respect just for being a man. Attentiveness to appearance generally signifies that a person is willing to work for respect; he doesn't make assumptions about what his sex, race, or body type will or won't automatically get him.

3. The way you carry yourself matters.  

I read this great thing on Humans of New York recently:

"I'm an architect."

"Tell me something that you've learned about architecture that also applies to life in general."

"Details matter. Sometimes I look at people on the subway, and I wonder if they realize how all the small decisions they make affect the overall effect they are giving off. Things like posture, clothing, hygiene..."

Presenting yourself is like preparing a resume: everything from font to word choice matters. Even the way you spell your name influences someone's perception of you. Simply slapping on a suit does not make a man instantly handsome any more than changing a resume's text from Comic Sans to Helvetica makes it instantly professional. Haircut, scent, eye contact, voice--these all go into personal style as much as clothes do.

It might seem overwhelming, but it actually lessens the burden a bit. You can look like swag master James Dean in a $5 white t-shirt, depending on how you carry yourself.

4. You are part of a tradition. 

Fashion is probably most similar in art form to architecture, but I don't know anything about architecture, so let's compare it to music.

I see menswear design as the visual equivalent to sampling--taking one portion of a song and using it in another. Rather than stealing someone else's genius, it pays respect to someone else's genius. Taking an already complete project and using it in a new way to push the art form forward is a serious talent, and it's something I really enjoy in menswear.

Men's designers generally have such profound respect for those who went before them--contemporary menswear is full of references to past influences.

Being part of a tradition is fun! Women's style is much less specific. I never feel a part of a tradition when I'm getting dressed, and I wish I did. There is a ton of history sewn into the cut of menswear. It's delightful to learn about and you can feel self-righteous as a member of a new generation carrying on the sartorial torch. #sartorialtorch

5. You are part of a group.

I like clothes that revere tradition, and I like clothes that revere other people. That's why I'm 800% pro-uniforms. It's an especially important lesson to learn early on that you are not alone in the world, and that you are not an exception. Dressing in a uniform signifies that you are part of a tribe, and your tribe has a purpose, and you are going to be working toward that purpose as long as you are wearing that blazer and khakis.

Our Savior Janelle Monae articulates this beautifully:

When I started my musical career I was a maid. My mother was a proud janitor, my step-father worked at the post office, and my father was a trash man. They all wore uniforms. And that's why I stand here today in my black and white and I wear my uniform to honor them. This is a reminder that I have work to do, I have people to uplift, I have people to inspire.

I've never worn a uniform, except during that unfortunate two-week run-in with a corporate coffee shop my sophomore year of college, but I really like the idea of putting on clothes to signify to myself and the world that I am ready for work.

Women's clothes aren't as standardized as men's, so it's hard to pretend. But if I were a man, I'd think of my daily outfit as my uniform, and I'd wear it with gusto!

6. Shape is personal.

I used to read those articles that would teach me how to dress for my body type. You know, like if you're an apple shape, wear this horrible peplum shirt to 'give the illusion of hips,'" and so forth. But then I realized two things:

a) My body shape doesn't seem to correspond to any fruit
b) The ideal shape that these articles are going for is very specific (thin European non-muscular hourglass), and doesn't account for individual preferences.

If you're dressing with the intention to attract honeys, it's wise to remember that not everyone is attracted to thin European non-muscular hourglass women, and not everyone is attracted to tall broad-shouldered slim men. These are societal standards only, and they are arbitrary. My BFF's preferred male body type: chubby and stocky. A suit designed to make a stocky man look tall and lean will look absurd. A suit designed to make a stocky man look wonderfully stocky will look charming!

Shape is personal. You are allowed to emphasize what you want. You don't have to look taller or slimmer or broader. You can look like you, wearing an outfit.

7. Color is spiritual.

Suit designer Ozwald Boateng says "color is spiritual."

Back to the musical comparison, color is the melody of the visual world. It's visceral, emotional, evocative in an immediate way. One doesn't have to understand the lyrics of a song to feel moved by it, and one doesn't have to stare at a painting for very long to feel something--calm, irritated, amused, uneasy.

If a person's outfit makes you feel a certain way, it's most likely a response to color. Color has a lot more say in our emotions than people realize. Use it wildly and attentively.

Also, wear more pink!

8. It doesn't have to make sense.

Fashion writer/my spiritual leader Jon Moy wrote a monumental piece about why people wear what they wear (and how The Sartorialist is, ironically, totally out-of-touch with street style). The gist was, fashion doesn't make sense. It's all right, neither does any art. The trend of keeping stickers on your hat makes as much sense as paint splatters or a lightbulb sculpture. There are aesthetic principles and criteria in every art form, but every one has been broken and the art world has been better for it.

One time my mom and I were staying at her very cool friend's very cool apartment in New York. The very cool friend is a painter--the kind who can cover a canvas with thin grey paint and sell it for thousands. He's really figured life out!

Anyway, he had a fantastic painting in his living room with all different colors on it in different textures, the sort of painting that you want to lick with your very tongue. He said he'd wanted it for years, and that it cost $10,000.

I liked it, but wasn't sure why I liked it, and didn't have anything profound to say about it. I figured that meant I didn't "get it." So I asked him, "Why did you pick this one?" He shrugged and said, "It makes me happy."

That was the moment when I felt like I, too, could appreciate art. It didn't have to make sense. Liking it was enough. Being happy was enough. This is how I go to art museums, and how I watch fashion shows. That guy walking down the runway with a box on his head looks scary? That's a perfectly valid judgment. You like the floral tutu because it reminds you of your grandma's garden in San Antonio? Totally sound explanation. And voila! You understand fashion.

Developing a style means doing whatever you want, whatever makes you happy. I say that with the emphasis on you. If you feel awkward about leaving stickers on your snapback, it will show, in a bad way. But if you genuinely like that trend  (because it's fun to show you have something new, or perhaps you like a patch of extra gold flash on your hat), it will show, in a good way.

There is a huge difference between "I'm going to wear clashing prints together because it's cool" and "I'm going to wear clashing prints together because I like both of these prints and I don't want to choose one over the other today." Even "I'm going to wear clashing prints together because Frank Ocean does it and Frank Ocean is a god" is a great reason to do something. Taking delight in what you wear, for whatever reason, is the very best way to get dressed.

If you have to ask "Does this make it look like I'm trying too hard?" then yes, you're trying too hard. If you don't even care how it looks because you like it so much, that's the beginning of personal style.